What Is a Poem?

A poem is a form of art in which the skillful choice and arrangement of words achieves a desired emotional effect. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelly defined poetry as "the expression of the imagination." Robert Frost said that a poem forms when "an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words."

Components of a Poem

Words are the medium of poetry. In poetry, words are arranged in lines and stanzas rather than sentences and paragraphs. Lines and stanzas contribute to the visual element of a poem and enhance the reader’s overall experience by providing places to pause and rest stops to consider a change in subject matter. Another hallmark of poetry is that it uses few words to create high impact. Therefore, the poet chooses his words economically, using specific combinations of words and literary devices to produce vivid imagery and pack meaning into each line.

Structures and Forms of Poetry

Poems can take many forms. Metered poetry is written with a specific syllable count in each line, with special attention to where the stressed and unstressed syllables fall to create a certain rhythm. This set rhythm creates flow, engages the reader and can spark positive emotions. Other types of poems consist of a specific number of lines and syllables, but are not metered, such as the haiku, cinquain and tanka. Free -verse poetry can be rhymed or unrhymed with no set meter, freeing the poet from restrictive rules. Concrete poems create a unique visual element in that the poem itself is shaped to support its theme. For instance, in Jack Prelutsky’s “I’m Stuck Inside a Seashell,” the words are arranged in a spiral, ending at the inside of the spiral, indicating “I have no where left to go.”

Elements of Poetic Language

The poet incorporates elements of verse, to skillfully and artfully turn his words into a poem. These elements support the theme of his poem. For instance, figurative language such as similes and metaphors create specific imagery and help the reader relate to the poem in complex and emotional ways. The use of different phonetic devices such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance create sound patterns that contribute to meaning. These sound patterns can speed up the tempo of a line to create a feeling of suspense or excitement, or slow it down to create a melancholy feeling. Repetition can be used to create flow and unity with a line. Onomatopoeia, or the use of words that sound like their denotation, enriches the imagery of the poem.

Poetry as Art

Poetry is art. While the arrangement of lines and the incorporation of the elements of verse are essential to the craft of poetry, the poem is considered a form of art, or something created to be appreciated for its beauty and emotional power. Poems are often inspired by the poet’s own experiences and epiphanies. The poet has discovered something profound and wants to relate it to others; therefore, poems are designed to provoke thought or cause an emotional response in the reader. Poet Margaret Ryan explains the role of poetry as this: “Through poetry, we learn how to be human, how to deal with suffering, what is important and lasting, and what really doesn’t matter much.”